Free Enterprise Staff  | April 14, 2015

Clock Watching For A Living

Where do you go when your face is a hundred years old and your insides need some tender loving care?

In Atlanta, that would be Bowers Watch & Clock Repair. A family owned and operated business since 1943, Bowers can fix whatever ails your timepiece – even if it’s only right twice a day. After seven decades, “We’ve seen just about everything,” says Michael Bowers. “We routinely work on very complicated watches with multiple calendars or stop watches and the like. We can also handle pretty much anything of any vintage. Age doesn’t scare us away. Everything from a wristwatch to grandfather clocks. We’ve even worked on the Newnan County (GA) courthouse tower clock and the one at Morris Brown University.”

Michael and his brother, Tim, are the third generation of Bowers to ply their trade with timepieces. Their father, Thomas, is also still active in the operation. But it was grandfather Henry who started the business by renting space in the back of a shoe store. “He had tuberculosis,” says Michael, “and he was retrained to repair watches and clocks.”

While Bowers did sell watches and clocks early on, the bulk of today’s business is strictly repair. “We got out of sales in the early-to-mid 80s.The quality just isn’t there for us to stand behind the product we sell, unfortunately. Clocks are not designed to be repaired in our day and age. They’re designed to be replaced. The mechanism is a modular thing. After WWII, the manufacturers saw that young people weren’t going into the field of repair. It’s those young people that grow up to be masters of what we do, and you have to be a master to do it right. You have to be able to diagnose, correct, test and maintain and provide maintenance and the clocks that are made today are not designed for that level of skill. They’re simply designed where a low entry skill level can just replace the mechanism.”

Michael and his brother, Tim, are among a select few cross-trained, meaning they work on both watches and clocks which is extremely unheard of in the business. “You normally do one or the other. It just takes too long to master one, much less both of them.”

Their expertise is put to the test every day. The average clock in the shop right now has seen a century come and go. And they routinely work on English Hall clocks (a type of grandfather clock) that are 250 years old. “They were made crude back then. That crudeness equals thickness and bearing, surface and longevity. Whereas today things are designed by computer and designed to save as much material as possible without much thought of longevity in mind.”

Some modern day watches still provide some excitement though. “Patek Philippe is the Rolls-Royce of watches,” says Michael. They’re the top, the king. I see maybe four of those a year. They aren’t mass-produced the way other watches are. They only make a few thousand a year literally.”

Patek Philippe models in stainless steel start at around $12,000. And they quickly escalate in value. “One time we had a special ladies’ watch that appreciated in value about a thousand dollars every day. It was completely encrusted with diamonds, and I mean several karats worth of high-end stones. We handled it very delicately and quickly for Tiffany’s.”

One of the big reasons Bowers has been around so long is the continuous dedication to their customers. Just as the business has been handed down from generation to generation, so have those who patronize the shop. “Being the family business that we are, we’ve always catered to traditional families more or less. We’re dealing with people who are the offspring of people our grandfather was taking care of. We started with good honest work practices and being honest with the customers, and have never changed.”

Perhaps another big reason for their success is that the Bowers’ boys make house calls for grandfather clocks in need of help. “We go out to the home, and if it needs repair, we can normally just lift the movement out of the casing, bring it back, do the repairs, return it, and set it up,” Michael says.

And like good customer service, clocks are traditional things. They get handed down generationally too. “People are very sentimental,” says Michael, “and they can get upset, especially when we’re not able to help, when things are just beyond repair.” Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.

The effect of digital watches has meant a big uptick in installing new batteries. As a matter of fact, Bowers does more watch battery replacement than repairs. And while it looks relatively simple to just pop off the back and put in a new battery, it does require a certain skill level. But as Michael reports, “We do it so quickly most customers don’t think we’ve done the job.”

Quartz crystals haven’t harmed the business either. Michael likens modern battery operated watches to computers. “There’s only so much repair you can do. If it needs more than one or two things, typically the whole movement is replaced. It’s not exactly a disposable item, but we do end up swapping out almost everything inside the watch. When the battery watches first came out, they were repairable. You could replace a component in it, a circuit board or individual part. These days, they’re made with a sealed plastic gearbox. I like to think of it as a temporary life rather than planned obsolescence. The movement is good and stable and does what it does for a while. But most are plastic and they’re just not going to last forever. I like to say the average life is around 10-20 years of a good useful life. After that, the case begins to go or the band begins to stretch on them.”

How about the advent of the new Apple watch?

“I’m not worried about it at all,” laughs Michael. “Because when you look around my shop the average clock is 100 years old. Will I be fixing a smart watch a hundred years from now? Probably not.”

There is another generation of Bowers coming along, starting slowly and learning the nomenclature and the tools of the trade on the weekends. But it’s obviously not a profession you can learn overnight. The clocks and watches brought into the store are as unique as the customers who trust the Bowers’ family to fix their heirlooms and sentimental favorites.

At some point in 72 years, they’ve seen just about every grandfather clock in the Atlanta area. The Bowers Watch & Clock Repair slogan is “We repair everything but sundials.” And, of course, batteries are replaced “while you wait.” It’s a business filled with history, one that faces the future with a “hands-on” attitude, and a time-honored tradition of excellence. Plus, it has one other huge advantage: how many other professions allow you to watch the clock all day long and get paid for it?